Crossing Lines: Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli’s cinema of violation

By Sonja Baksa

Within the space of a few years, Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli have established themselves as a formidable filmmaking duo, and created a complex and distinct oeuvre. VIFF audiences have been privy to their cinematic journey from the start, as all three of their short films have screened at past editions. This year, all eyes are on Violation, their debut feature.

An auteur statement in its own right, Violation represents the synthesis of ideas and themes they have explored through the short form. In anticipation of the feature’s bow at VIFF, let’s revisit their earlier work and trace the maturation of ideas, visual language, and narrative subtext in their body of work.

Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli were first introduced to VIFF audiences with Slap Happy in 2017. Centering on a young couple with a taste for kink, the short film depicts the disintegration of their relationship as they edge each other out of their respective comfort zones. In the span of ten minutes, the film isolates key moments in the collapse of their relational dynamic. In turn, it reveals the directors’ obsession with the volatility of human nature, capacity for emotional manipulation, and tendency for pushing boundaries. Combined with naturalistic performances and unfiltered dialogue, Slap Happy introduces us to the signature traits of their cinematic language.

While slightly more subdued, Woman in Stall (VIFF 2018) is an equally probing psychological study that finds a young woman in an awkward stalemate with a stranger in the public washroom. What begins as playful banter while she’s changing clothes in a stall soon turns uncomfortable when the man incessantly asks questions and refuses to move away from the door. The situation quickly escalates from trivial to alarming, with the filmmakers once again focusing on the precise moment when things take a turn. Moreover, in this pivotal sequence, the film astutely identifies some of the troubling aspects of current gender politics and the ways in which communication disconnects as a result. It is particularly resonant in its scrutiny of both parties’ accountability in the situational breakdown.

In their subsequent effort, Chubby (VIFF 2019), Mancinelli and Sims-Fewer set foot in taboo territory as they examine the ripple effects of sexual abuse within a family. The film opens with a brother and sister engaging in a no-holds-barred game of truth or dare, which the 10-year-old girl desperately wants to win so that her older brother will attend her gymnastics competition. It is apparent from the start that theirs is a bond of extreme familial intimacy, where crude riffing is par for the course. The sense of unease, however, is instant and incessant.

Cutting to a future family gathering, the sense of foreboding reaches fruition as nervous glances, gestures and whispers paint a picture of a family reeling from a traumatic event. The story continues to unfold through flashbacks, snippets of individual interactions, blurring past and present in order to reveal the disturbing repercussions of these painful family secrets.

Chubby is a prelude to Violation in terms of subject, narrative technique, and visual aesthetic. It solidifies a cinematic approach that fully aligns with their storytelling vision. The use of non-linear structure allows for the subtext to be entwined with the character arc, while the filmmakers engage the viewer on a sensory level. This involves the use of handheld camera, close-ups and a play with focus, all filtered through fast cuts that mirror the emotional cacophony sparked by events. It highlights their skill with framing key emotional states and expertly homing in on nuanced shifts in atmosphere.

These short films allowed Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli to develop a signature style that engages on a visceral level. Their work to date underlines an interest in transgression, subverting expectations of intimacy and relational familiarity to demonstrate the consequences of abuse. They are intent on examining the sinister undercurrents of human nature, a subject that is inherently complex, multifaceted, and, as their cinema suggests, ultimately destructive.

Moreover, their collaboration enriches the storytelling playbook through both the convergence and polarity of their male and female perspectives. This is evident in the gender-centric storylines and the unrelenting questioning of relational dynamics, gender stereotypes, social norms, and conventions.

Woman in Stall and Chubby are currently available for GOLD Subscribers on the VIFF Connect streaming platform. Violation screens online at this year’s VIFF from Sept 24-Oct 7.

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